Thursday, May 12, 2011

Fresh from The Tulip Ball

Years ago, enamored by photographs of Dutch tulips that smiled at me from every page of my fall planting catalogues, I took a trip to Amsterdam to see the spring beauties in their native city. Imagine my disappointment, when after exploring that vibrant European capital, I didn’t find a single bud! To see the flowers, I took a day-long bus tour deep into Dutch countryside where the plants were being farmed. The endless rainbow fields of tulips disappearing into the horizon were gorgeous, impressive, and picturesque, but coupled with the seven-hour flight from New York, it took too long to get there.

Ottawa was so much closer. Plus it celebrates its tulips with vibrancy, fun, and food. And, as it turned out, it has a Dutch story of its own.

During the Second World War, Ottawa sheltered Dutch Princess Juliana and her daughter, who made the Canadian capital their home. Pregnant again, Princess Juliana was concerned that her second child would not be a Dutch citizen. The city authorities temporarily declared the maternity ward of Ottawa Civic Hospital international territory, and so Princess Margriet was born to no country, thus inheriting her Dutch citizenship from her mother. 

In 1945, when the war ended, the royal family presented 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa to express their gratitude for Canada’s support. Next year, Princess Juliana sent another 20,000 bulbs to create a display for the hospital where her royal infant was born and promised to send a batch every year.

Needless to say, Ottawa became famous for its tulips and, in 1952, the Tulip Festival was born. The Dutch Royal family occasionally graces it with their presence – the very same Princess Margriet returned in 2002 to celebrate its 50th occurrence. She wasn’t there this year (pity!) but maybe she will return next spring for the festival’s 60th anniversary.

It may not have been a part of royal tradition, but the festival opens with a Friday night Tulip Ball attended by prominent Canadian figures. In addition to delicious dinner and dancing, it also features a one-of-a-kind fashion show during which models sashay through the hall wearing elaborate tulip gowns created by local artists. Debunking the typical snobbish model stereotype, they are all extremely sweet and will pose for a million pictures afterwards!

I didn’t count, but the festival claims to display nearly a million blooming flowers, thus being the world's largest tulip festival. Not all the buds bloom at once, and quite a few were still shy little buds, but one can’t argue with Mother Nature. The good part is, one doesn’t have to travel far and wide to enjoy the blooms: the bulbs are planted right in downtown Ottawa, in Commissioner’s Park, Major’s Hill Park along the Rideau Canaland on the shores of Dow's Lake.

The festival runs for three weekends in May (May 6–23 this year, ) and includes performances, children’s attractions, food, and many other events. It’s a great off-the-beaten track cultural spring getaway. And it’s entirely open to public, Canadian and otherwise – the Tulip Ball included.


  1. I've gotta get up to Ottawa next spring. Amazing and over the top--love it!

  2. I've gone searching for tulips in Amsterdam, too. Unfortunately, I always seem to get there at the wrong time of year. Next time I get a hankering for these flowers, I'll head north instead of east.